I wrote most of the following the days after the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016. It’s been 72 days since and I can now see it as an inflection point in a year begun with high hopes but which by then had long unravelled into low spirits. I can trace an almost uninterrupted upward spiral of rhythm & momentum since that sleepless night that continues to today.
The world feels fresh and new, full of possibility. I hoped for Brexit but didn’t dare imagine it would actually happen. Now that it has what surprises me most is how much it has invigorated me.
So why the exhilaration?
I’ll begin with 3 abstract reasons.
First, I’m no longer the anarcho-capitalist libertarian I was in my 20s but my heart still admires and yearns for exits. I sympathize with the impulse for exit on a deep level and it troubles me how often exit is ridiculed and demonized (when it isn’t actively thwarted, punished or outlawed).
Second, there’s something in my makeup that thrives on the discontinuities that shake us up and reveal human contingency: what could be seems impossible until it becomes what is, which then seems inevitable until it ends and becomes what was.
The odds of Brexit on Betfair were always skewed heavily against it (~25% implied probability) despite narrow polling. As the referendum was closing the odds of Brexit even dropped to ~12.5% (meaning the right foresight earned you an easy 8x!). Myself, I only dared to bet $20 against Brexit a month ago hoping only for emotional hedging to what seemed the inevitable status quo.
Third, I’m guilty of an inordinate fondness for fringe contrarians paired with a strong distaste of condescending preaching.
Never has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook.
And none of it worked. The opinion polls barely moved over the course of the campaign, and 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU. That slender majority was probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.
But let’s get specific
I was born and so far have lived most of my life here in Mexico but I came of age at the online anglosphere. For over a decade I’ve mostly lived a happy monkish life of reading, writing, thinking, programming —all in an English bubble.
After being deported from the US, I got back on my feet by slow traveling around Southeast Asia & Europe. I remember staying a couple happy months at London and Oxford —as a Mexican I can travel visa-free as a tourist to the UK for 6 months, to the Schengen area only for 3! I have since returned several times to Europe to lift up my spirits, usually to meet those international Europeans (usually northerners) that have likewise grown in an English global culture.
I know the scifi-coined idea of the anglosphere is often dismissed as overly romantic (unlike the hardheaded European dream?), but how can I disbelief the place where I spend most of my waking hours? How can I deny it is somewhere dramatically different than the hispanosphere that surrounds me most days? Or the francosphere & germanosphere I’ve dabbled in enthusiastically? “Every culture lives within its dream” and the anglosphere’s is distinctive and valuable to me.
The British (idea of democracy)
“This is not democracy, this is Russian roulette.”
But the British political tradition IS precisely for even-1-vote majorities to decide legitimately an election — the winning side’s ideas are then embraced and tested out, moderated by a strong civil society and a brilliant touch for mixing continuity and innovation. The European continental tradition skews far more towards proportionality and consensus built on compromises.
There are many subtle ways to interpret elections and explain what they’re for. You can see them as a way for some citizens to delegate their power and elect their representatives. As a way to read the will of the people, a kind of momentous survey that crystallizes the wisdom of crowds —not unlike what Reddit, Facebook or Google (where links are votes) do every day. The unique British tradition is to see voting as simply a way to peacefully correct group mistakes).
There have been interesting analyses of the surprising victory of Brexit in terms of demography (specially age) & social class (with its concern for immigration). There are dark undercurrents on Leave, as there were on Remain. But the final explanation must also have at its heart the particular fondness for sovereignty and democracy of the British,
which is different than mere disapproval of the EU, itself quite widespread:
(Notice how France has one of the most unfavorable views of the EU yet paradoxically has one of the biggest segments wanting more national devolution towards the EU. Weird.)
I’m saddened that Brexit has caused many friends heartbreak, it represents an important setback for the dream of a supranational Europe and I feel their pain. I’m particularly sensible to the risk that the free movement of Europeans will be curtailed. I understand this was not an easy decision nor one without tradeoffs and loss.
But I see it as the happy, stubborn survival of the fountainhead of the dream of the anglosphere: accountable democracy, common law, plurality voting (instead of proportionality), the Westminster parliamentary system, emphasis on freedom & property (instead of ever vaguer human rights), individuality, adversarial traditions (instead of inquisitorial or consensus traditions), free trade (instead of trade blocs), free speech, evolutionary continuity, defiance of authority…
and Europe by her example.”